What Do We Make of the Stem Cell Debate? A Biblical Perspective

Heather Zieger looks at the stem cell debate from a biblical worldview perspective.  This Christian perspective recognizes the true source of life and the difficulties with destroying many young lives for the hope of being able to save a few older lives.

What Are Stem Cells?

If science had a tabloid magazine, then stem cells would grace the cover. And much like the Hollywood celebrities, stem cells are at the center of controversy. How is a Christian to respond to conflicting reports and confusing science? In this article we will discuss the differences between adult and embryonic stem cells, look at some media myths, and evaluate the worldview issues behind the controversy.

First, let’s define stem cells. Stem cells are cells that serve as the body’s carpenters and mechanics to other cells. Their name comes from the stem of a plant. Think of a rose. From the stem grow the leaves, the thorns, and the flower. The flower does not produce leaves, nor do the thorns produce a flower, but the stem produces all of these things. However, the stem of the rose is still part of the plant. In the same way, stem cells are themselves cells and they produce other cells.

Stem cells can be found throughout our body. Think about when you give blood. Your body will resupply the blood that you lost. It does this by using blood stem cells. When your body needs more blood, signals tell the blood stem cells to make red blood cells, white blood cells and plasma cells. Another example is our skin. We lose skin every day, but our body has very active skin stem cells that grow new layers. Keep skin stem cells in mind, because scientists have been able to do some amazing things with skin stem cells.

Blood and skin stem cells are examples of adult stem cells, which are different from another type of stem cell called embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are only found in the inner cell mass of a 5- to 8-day-old embryo. These cells end up making every cell in the human body and can divide indefinitely. They are believed to be much more versatile than adult stem cells. Because of this ability, scientists describe embryonic stem cells as pluripotent. Adult stem cells are programmed to only make certain types of cells (like our example of blood stem cells), and adult stem cells have a limited number of cell divisions. Because of this, they are described as multipotent.

As we look at some of the scientific research on stem cells, we will find that adult stem cells are more versatile than we once thought, and embryonic stem cells have limitations that scientists still need to overcome.{1}

Adult Stem Cells: The Underreported Medical Successes

Oneof the two main types of stem cells is adult stem cells. Adult stem cells are named for their abilities, not for their source. We find very helpful adult stem cells in umbilical cord blood and the placenta even though these sources are not from adults. One of the most studied adult stem cell sources is bone marrow. The first bone marrow transplant was performed in 1968. But it wasn’t until 1988 that scientists identified the stem cells within bone marrow that caused the transplants to work.{2}

Bone marrow transplants demonstrate one of the biggest advantages of adult stem cells. Scientists did not know what a stem cell was, let alone how they worked, but the bone marrow transplants were still successful. The stem cells knew where to go in the body to repair the right tissues. This ability to automatically go to the location of repair is characteristic of all adult stem cells.

Bone marrow transplants also demonstrate one disadvantage to adult stem cell therapy. Just like an organ transplant, the stem cell donor must be an exact match to the patient. And the patient will need to take immuno-suppressant drugs for the rest of his life.

However, recent findings with umbilical cord blood have shown that the donor does not have to be an exact match when cord blood is used, meaning that a patient has a better chance of finding a donor. One of the first umbilical cord treatments was for sickle cell disease in a twelve-year-old boy.{3} He responded so well to treatment that a year later doctors declared him cured of sickle cell disease. He does have to take immune suppressant drugs, but does not display sickle cell symptoms.

One way around the donor problem is to use the patient’s own healthy stem cells to repair other damaged cells. Parents now have the choice to bank their child’s umbilical cord blood in the event that the child may need it. This technique was successfully used to help a child with her cerebral palsy symptoms.{4} Other adult stem cell successes include rebuilding bone, alleviating some cancers and auto-immune diseases, relieving Parkinson’s symptoms, and treatments for Type I diabetes.{5}

All of these therapies have happened in real people using stem cells that do not involve the destruction of an embryo, and would be perfectly ethical within a Christian worldview.

What is the Promise of Embryonic Stem Cells?

The second type of stem cell is embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells come from the inner cell mass of a 5- to 8-day-old embryo. Embryos are formed after the egg and sperm have united, which initiates a directional process that, given proper conditions, can eventually form a baby. At the 5- to 8-day stage, there are only a few cells within the embryo, but these cells are capable of making all of the cells in the human body. To obtain these cells, scientists penetrate the outer protective layer of the embryo and remove the cells. This procedure destroys the embryo.

It is still only a theoretical possibility that human embryonic stem cells can cure diseases. There is one FDA approved human trial that was announced in January 2009 for patients with a recent spinal cord injury.{6} We will have to wait to find out the results of this treatment. In other parts of the world, people have sought embryonic stem cell therapy as a desperate measure. One man in China had embryonic stem cells injected into his brain to relieve his Parkinson’s symptoms. Unfortunately, the cells spun out of control and continued to make new cells of varying cell types. They eventually formed a large brain tumor consisting of different kinds of cells [a teratoma], such as skin cells, hair cells, and blood cells.{7} Another boy in Israel had a disease that attacked his spinal cord. His parents took him to Russia for several treatments with embryonic stem cells. Four years later, doctors found tumors in his spine that they confirmed came from the embryonic stem cell therapy.{8}

One of the most difficult hurdles for embryonic stem cell research is trying to program the stem cell to become the particular cell type that they need. The second hurdle is then telling the cell to stop multiplying before it forms a tumor. The signals and mechanisms for this are still being researched; however, one recent study involving the rebuilding of mouse muscles using embryonic stem cells shows some progress in this area.{9}

While embryonic stem cells may theoretically have promise, they have not shown this in reality. Time will tell if they actually deliver. However, the ethical issue from a Christian perspective is not whether this research has a practical use, but whether we want to go down the path of using the parts of one human being, deemed less worthy of life, for another.

Media Myths

Unfortunately, the stem cell debate has turned into a media poster child for the next big scientific miracle. And stem cells have been hot science topics in the political realm. What is striking in all of this are the misconceptions that are repeated in the media.

Let’s go over three media myths in the stem cell debate.

The first myth is that President Bush restricted stem cell research. Actually, President Bush was the first president to specifically allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.{10} However, he did put limits on how far they can take that funding. Furthermore, what is often omitted is that private companies have always been allowed to invest in embryonic stem cell research.

The second myth often repeated by the media is that embryonic stem cells have the potential to cure all types of diseases including spinal cord injuries,{11} Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. So far, the only successful stem cell treatments of spinal cord injuries or of Parkinson’s symptoms{12} have been with adult stem cells.

I want to emphasize that Alzheimer’s will never be cured by stem cell therapy of any kind. Alzheimer’s causes the death of many types of brain tissues. Stem cells might be able to replace some dead tissue, but tissue death is a symptom, not the cause. Alzheimer’s affects the whole brain so deeply and quickly that it really isn’t an issue of replacing cells. Therefore, scientists must look to other areas for cures for Alzheimer’s.{13} The perpetuation of the myth that stem cells will cure Alzheimer’s is either a cruel misrepresentation in order to sell a story, or else demonstrates a complete lack of understanding on the subject.

The third misrepresentation is the blatant lack of media coverage for adult stem cells. There have been over 70 different diseases, disorders, or injuries that have been helped or cured with adult stem cells in human trials,{14} yet this has hardly been covered by the media. We have discussed the successes of bone marrow and umbilical cord blood, but where is the media coverage of the latest findings with skin stem cells?{15} Scientists have found ways to coax a patient’s own skin stem cells into acting just like an embryonic stem cell. In other words, these cells have the potential to become almost any cell in the body and they are from the patient’s skin. No use of embryos, no immuno-suppressant drugs, and the technique has been refined for patient safety.{16}

Why this bias? There is a worldview issue at the heart of the matter.

Stem Cells from a Christian Worldview

We have looked at the differences between embryonic and adult stem cells. We have seen the double standard the media has in reporting these types. But the question remains, with all of the successes of adult stem cells, including the ability to create embryonic-like stem cells from the patient’s own skin, why insist on continuing embryonic stem cell research? Why does the debate continue?

I believe a major part of the problem is the answer to the question, Who is in authority? There are two broad options: a God-centered authority or a man-centered authority. The man-centered authority in this case is called scientism. It is the idea that science will save us from our problems and tell what we need to know about life, including what is right and wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am trained as a scientist, and I think studying nature and pursuing scientific questions is important. But when we prioritize science as the only means of gaining knowledge and make it the guide for our lives and the decisions we make, we aren’t studying the world around us, we have essentially invented a religion.

The other perspective is a God-centered authority. In this case all of nature, technology and our decisions are under God’s authority. In other words, we determine what is right and wrong from the Bible because it is God’s revealed word.

Scientists want to continue studying embryonic stem cells, because they want to explore all possibilities, and they see no reason why they shouldn’t. From their worldview, they are in authority. There is no reason to put moral limitations on research. Many people latch onto this idea because they believe science will save them. They have faith in science. Some even believe this to the point of claiming stem cells will cure diseases and ailments that no stem cell therapy could ever do.{17}

Some scientists argue that we need to study embryos to better understand how a disease can develop in the earliest cells. These studies have been done in animals, but scientists would prefer to use humans because there are several developmental differences between humans and other animals.{18}

As Christians, we believe scientific study and finding cures for diseases is a great endeavor. But just because we can do something, doesn’t always mean we should. We know what we should do from God’s word. He values the unborn, and values human beings as having inherent dignity because we are made in his image. We therefore cannot judge some humans less valuable than others, and we certainly cannot destroy them for research observations or for removal of their parts. From this perspective, adult stem cell research is ethical, but embryonic stem cell research is not.

Notes

1. An excellent documentary on the basics of stem cells and the controversy around embryonic and adult stem cells: The Lines that Divide: The Great Stem Cell Debate. Dir. Brian Godwana. The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, 2009. See this link for a clip: www.thecbc.org/redesigned/research_display.php?id=373.
2. “Purification and characterization of mouse hematopoietic stem cells.” GJ Spangrude, S Heimfild, IL Weissman, Science Vol. 241, Issue 4861, 58-62.
3. www.nationalcordbloodprogram.com
4. www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,392061,00.html
5. www.stemcellresearch.org
6. www.geron.com/grnopc1clearance/
7. “Survival and proliferation of non neural tissues, with obstruction of cerebral ventricles in a Parkinsonian patient treated with fetal allografts.” Neurology, Vol 46, Issue 5, May 1, 1996.
8. www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000029
9. “Functional skeletal muscle regeneration from differentiating embryonic stem cells.” Nature Medicine 14, 134-143, 2008.
10. See Executive Order 13435; for an excellent article on the politics of stem cell research from a Christian worldview, see “Responsible Science & ESCR” by Greg Koukl in Solid Ground May/June 2009 (a publication of Stand to Reason).
11. www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1864811 (Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine 29, 191-203, July 2006).
12. www.lifenews.com/bio2751.html; www.bio-medicine.org/medicine-technology-1/Groundbreaking-Paper-Publishes-Long-Term-Results-of-a-Successful-Phase-I-Clinical-Trial-Using-Autologous-Neural-Stem-Cells-to-Treat-Parkinsons-Disease-3848-1/; www.bentham-open.org/pages/content.php?TOSCJ/2009/00000001/00000001/20TOSCJ.PDF
13. For an excellent overview of Alzheimer’s, see the Alzheimer’s association website at www.alz.org; for their statement on stem cell research see: www.alz.org/national/documents/statements_stemcell.pdf.
14. “A 37-year-old-spinal-cord-injured female patient, transplanted of multipotent stem cells from hum UC blood, with improved sensory perception and mobility, both functionally and morphologically: a case study.” Cythotherapy 7, Issue 4, 368-373, 2005.
15. One person in the popular media who did mention skin stem cells was Dr. Mehmet Oz on the Oprah Winfrey Show: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDFJOzu9SyM.
16. K. Takahashi, et al., Cell doi: 10.1016/j.cell. 2007.11.019; 2007; J. Yu, et al., Science doi: 10.1126/Science. 1151526; 2007.
17. See Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson’s article in First Things for an excellent reference on the history of stem cell research: www.firstthings.com/article.php?year=2008&month=10&title_link=001-stem-cells-a-political-history-27. Also see Anderson’s article in the Weekly Standard for reasons scientists still want to study embryonic stem cell research: www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/016/258hdaij.asp?pg=1.
18. The scientists who conducted the research on skin stem cells that were coaxed into acting like embryonic stem cells did use knowledge from embryonic stem cell research to help identify the general markers for pluripotency. However, it is unclear that it is necessary to use human embryonic stem cells for this, because the markers for pluripotency were first identified in mouse embryonic stem cells.

© 2009 Probe Ministries




Animal/Human Hybrids

Editor’s Note: The bulk of Heather Zeiger’s study in bioethics has focused on the major issues addressed in American media, politics and science, such as stem cells, cloning and euthanasia, which is why she so anticipated this year’s theme for the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity Conference: Global Bioethics. The global context brought a broader perspective on the issues surrounding bioethics: India’s medical tourism and black market organ donations, treating AIDS/HIV in Africa with limited resources, and euthanasia laws in Australia. One country that has been at the forefront of bioethics news is Great Britain because of their lenient legislation on issues concerning human dignity and “human exceptionalism” (the idea that humans have a higher moral status than any other species). This is the first article emerging from her studies and experience at the Global Bioethics conference.

Dr. Calum MacKellar of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, who has represented Scotland at the Council of Europe and UNESCO, discussed human/animal hybrids, which can be legally created for research purposes in Great Britain. This article reports the major points of Dr. MacKellar’s lecture and unless otherwise noted, all facts and statistics are drawn from his extended report on the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics Web site (www.schb.org.uk).

What Are Hybrids? What Are the Possibilities?

True Hybrids are embryos formed when the gametes (egg and sperm) are from different species. For example a human/chimp hybrid would be formed from the combining of a human egg with a chimpanzee sperm, or vice versa. These true hybrids create a new entity or species. One familiar example brought about by breeding is a mule, which is produced from horse and donkey gametes. In nature animal/animal hybrids tend to be less fit than their parents. Experiments to combine human and animal gametes have not been successful.

Cybrids are formed when the nucleus of an egg from one species is removed and filled with the nuclear material of another species. This mimics the technology of cloning, except one is using nuclear material from one species and a cell from a different species. The term cybrid comes from the combination of “cytoplasmic hybrid” because the genetic material in this new embryo is 99.9% of the nuclear species and 0.01% of the species that donated the egg [Michael Cook, “Soft Cell: How Scientists Are Easing away Opposition to Animal-Human Hybrids” Salvo, Issue 4, Winter 2009]. Most genetic material is found in the nucleus, but a little bit is left in the cytoplasm of the egg. Scientists have been able to insert human genetics (a nucleus) into a cow’s egg (an enucleated egg). The resulting embryo survived for twelve days. Other experiments have involved inserting human genetic material into a frog’s egg and into a rabbit’s egg. Neither of these survived beyond a week and never reached the blastocyst stage.

Chimeras (kī-‘mir-uhz) are formed when the cells of one species are added to the embryo of another species. This results in an animal that has distinct parts from one species or the other. Think of the centaur in fantasy fiction. Fictional centaurs exhibit distinct parts that are human and distinct parts that are horse. This has actually been done in the lab with a goat and sheep. The resulting animal did survive and had distinctive goat legs and a distinctive sheep head.

Transgenic embryos are created by adding a few genes from one species into the embryo of another species. However, only a few genes can be added before the embryo collapses, providing self-limitations for this technique. Scientists have inserted human genes into pigs to create human insulin for diabetes patients. Scientists have also attempted to replace damaged human heart valves with animal heart valves. This is using animal parts in a mechanistic sense, and is known as xenotransplantation.

Although the media and legislation discuss human/animal hybrids, they are really talking about human/animal cybrids. While there are examples of hybrids in nature, thus far all experiments with human/animal hybrids have proven unsuccessful, even using in vitro fertilization technology.

Is This Legal?

Very few countries have passed specific legislation pertaining to any kind of combination of human and non-human material. Most laws either single out humans or animals. However, several recent initiatives have been discussed:

Council of Europe: Embryonic, Foetal and Post-natal Animal-Human Mixtures, Doc. 10716 (October 11, 2005)—This document encourages the participating states to consider the ethical ramifications of creating human/animal hybrids, and also encourages the formation of a steering committee within the Council of Europe to address these ethical issues.

Canada: Assisted Human Reproduction Act 2004 —This act prohibits the creation of a chimera or a hybrid and prohibits the transfer of a chimera or hybrid into a human being or a non-human life form.

USA: Draft Human Chimera Prohibition Act of 2005 (S.1373) —This draft, introduced by Senator Sam Brownback, would prohibit “any person to knowingly, in or otherwise affecting interstate commerce: (1) create or attempt to create a human chimera; (2) transfer or attempt to transfer a human embryo into a non-human womb; (3) transfer or attempt to transfer a non-human embryo into a human womb; or (4) transport or receive for any purpose a human chimera.” In this case, some hybrids would fall under the category of chimera.

United Kingdom: Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990)—This legislation states that the creation of human/animal entities would exist in a “legal vacuum” and hybrids could be formed if a proper license is obtained. The importance of this act is the fact that it makes it unclear whether the human/animal entities fall under human or animal legislation.

What Are the Consequences of Using This Technology?

Legal Consequences

There are several legal issues to consider, but probably the most troubling is whether the entity produced should fall under human or animal legislation. Several questions follow this, such as “What percentage of the being needs to be human to fall under human legislation? What if the human/animal entity began as 30% human and 70% animal, but the human cells grew faster and the entity ended up being 70% human and 30% animal?” Dr. MacKellar preferred erring on the side of caution and giving the entity the protection and dignity entitled to a human being, however this is only a protective declaration and does not solve the myriad legal issues surrounding the creation of this new entity.

Societal Consequences

The formation of an entity that is both animal and human raises questions of personhood and challenges our definition of humanness. These beings will inevitably be met with challenges that go beyond identification with a minority group. Would protections such as the Fourteenth Amendment apply to these creatures, and how human would they have to be for them to possess rights and privileges? Would society want to grant them rights and privileges? Would the military want to create a human/ape hybrid soldier in hopes that they would be bigger, stronger, and easier to feed? Given human history, the temptation to relegate these beings to a lower class would be inevitable.

There are risks associated with diseases that may cross the species barrier. As Dr. MacKellar pointed out, we have several examples of diseases crossing the species barrier including HIV, swine flu and bird flu. We also know that these diseases can sometimes be more harmful or even fatal to one species than they were to another. If an entity is part human and part animal, and a disease is very contagious among either type of animal it shares characteristics with, it will likely infect the hybrid. At this point, the disease may adapt to human DNA, posing a great health threat to all humans, not just hybrids.

Do Hybrids and Cybrids Have Souls?

I believe, from a biblical perspective, the creation of hybrids, cybrids, and chimeras is unethical. However, some instances of transgenic technology, namely xenotransplantation, may be ethical, especially since there are built-in biological limitations regarding how many genes can be inserted into another species.

Do these procedures violate the sanctity of human life? Several thoughts:

• Humans are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26);

• We were created separately (Gen 1:25, 26). We were created differently than the animals (“Let the earth bring forth living creatures…” Gen 1:24; “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” Gen 2:7);

• We humans were given dominion over the animals (Gen 1:29, 30). Therefore, these procedures do seem to violate the sanctity of human life as revealed in Scripture.

Are scientists attempting to bridge the gap in created kinds?

God directly created animals according to their kind, and it is implied in the flood account that He intended for them to reproduce according to their kind (Gen. 1:21; Gen. 8:17).

The Bible indicates that man has dignity and worth. If we try to create a being that might be less-than-human by combining it with animal cells or gametes, this would diminish such God-given qualities. It is from a naturalistic perspective that people believe animals are better than man because they seem to be stronger, faster, or heartier. This is not the Biblical perspective.

Do these procedures have something in common with bestiality?

One could argue that the creation of human/animal hybrids may constitute an instance of bestiality. Biblically, bestiality is a type of fornication with animals; it is a type of intimacy that perverts the real intimacy that God designed between a husband and wife. I find bestiality to be a particularly distasteful subject, and perhaps we get an indication of God’s distaste for this since it is a sin that was punishable by death (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 18:23; Lev. 20:15, 16; Deut. 27:21). Procreation and consummation are not distinctly separate in the Bible. It is only through modern technology that procreation can occur in the laboratory apart from consummation. I think an argument could be made that procreation with human and animal gametes is a connection with animals that man was not meant to experience.

But what about…?

This article is a short report on hybrids and variations on combining human and non-human species, but we have not even discussed the multiple questions that arise from this type of experiment, such as:

• Why are scientists doing this?

• What are the implications for common descent if human and animals can breed?

• How does this affect the definition of species?

Also, I did not really deal with whether hybrids have souls or not because we just don’t know. Personally, I think it will be biologically impossible to create a true human/animal hybrid, but cybrids may be a possibility. I think that, much like clones, a cybrid that grows beyond the embryonic stage would be very unstable and unhealthy as well as incredibly expensive and inefficient to make. And much like clones, I can’t answer if they would have a soul.

I am thankful for groups like the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics for addressing this topic in secular language within the public square, but with an underlying Biblical perspective. It is groups like this that enable us to interact in a well-informed way in our places of influence. Whether it is voting for legislation or simply talking with our friends at Starbucks, you don’t have to work for the Council of Europe to champion the Biblical perspective within the public square.

You can find Dr. MacKeller’s full report on the Scottish Council of Human Bioethics Web site: www.schb.org.uk.

© 2009 Probe Ministries




Human Embryonic Stem Cells Go to Human Trials

January 23, 2009

Just when we all thought that perhaps the wind in the sails of the human embryonic stem cell debate had abated, Geron Inc. announced that it was approved by the FDA to conduct an experimental procedure on human subjects who have suffered from a recent spinal cord injury. The procedure would involve the injection of neural cells derived from human embryonic stem cells into a spinal cord injury site. The patients would receive two months of immune suppressant drugs and will be closely monitored for a year. The stem cells were obtained from some of the oldest lines of human embryonic stem cells that were left over from in vitro fertilization procedures.

What if this doesn’t work?

There are many human embryonic stem cell researchers who are worried about Geron doing the first human trials. Dr. Kessler, chairman of neurology and director of the stem cell institute at Northwestern University, is quoted in the New York Times as being skeptical that Geron’s technique will work on human patients. In trials with mice, Geron showed that mobility increased in the tails and legs of mice with moderate spinal cord damage. Also, the mice showed no formation of tumors, a problem with embryonic stem cell therapies. However, the mice had “moderate injuries,” and Kessler is skeptical that alleviating moderate injuries in mice will translate in the severe injuries in humans.

For those of us who are against the use of embryos for research purposes, this would be another example of the difficulty of using embryonic stem cells. This is just one more reason why more research and research dollars should be focused on adult stem cells. Adult stem cell research has been successfully used in humans for years, and is not ethically contentious.

As Christians, we also need to be mindful and prayerful of the fact that there are many people who have placed hope in embryonic stem cell research. The media has portrayed embryonic stem cells as the panacea for everything from spinal cord injuries to diabetes to Alzheimer’s. We need to be sensitive to the pain and disappointment that this could be for many people who have had to deal with permanent injuries or debilitating conditions.

What if this works?

First of all, even if this particular trial works, the scientists at Geron say that there is still many years of work to do. All they are testing now in Phase I clinical trials is if it is safe. Testing for efficacy comes later.

If this procedure works both safely and therapeutically, then we as Christians have the most difficult position. The fact that we believe the embryo is a person, and that it has value and dignity, does not change. Also, the fact that from a biblical perspective it is unethical for us to decide to destroy one life to save another, and to value one life over another, does not change. But anyone who is in this position or has a child, a spouse, or a loved one paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury must make a decision, and no matter what decision they make there will likely be feelings of guilt, regret and temptations too. Consider two examples:

1) Your spouse is in a horrible car accident and suffers from a spinal cord injury which will likely leave him/her paralyzed. You have the option of doing embryonic stem cell therapy at the injured site, which may result in your spouse regaining some mobility. You don’t think it is right to destroy an embryo because it is a person too, and is made in the image of God so it has inherent value. As you watch your spouse work with his/her injury, learning how to live life without mobility, how likely is it that you will ask yourself, “Did I do the right thing?” “If that embryo was going to die or be used in someone else anyway, why not my spouse?” How tempting would it be to carry that regret and guilt?

2) As before, your spouse is in a horrible car accident and suffers from the same injuries. This time you elect to do the embryonic stem cell therapy. Your spouse regains some mobility, but how tempting would it be to wonder about the sacrifice that was made, and the guilt associated with compromising, or to look at your children knowing that they were embryos once too?

These are not easy decisions. I will not pretend that even though as Christians we believe in the sanctity of human life, somehow it makes one decision any easier or the other decision any less tempting. Thankfully, we do not have to make these decisions at this time, and my prayer is that I hope we never do. It is said that a society can be judged by how they treat their most vulnerable. From the biblical perspective Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did to me” (Matthew 25:40).

To give you two additional pieces of encouragement:

1) Adult stem cells have alleviated the effects of particular types of spinal cord injury in human patients (see www.discovery.org/a/2362 for a great article that was written in 2004, but seems quite timely now).

2) Desiring to alleviate the effects of the fall, including things like spinal cord injuries, is understandable. Whether or not we find a cure within someone’s lifetime, we have hope in God’s promise that he has conquered death and we will receive a resurrected body (1 Corinthians 15).

For more information on stem cells see these two articles from Probe.org:

www.probe.org/amniotic-stem-cells/

www.probe.org/the-continuing-controversy-over-stem-cells

© 2009 Probe Ministries




Personhood and Origins

Does One’s View of Origins Really Matter?

In the midst of carpools, meetings, appointments, and everything else that life throws at us, does it really matter whether someone is a Darwinist or a Creationist, or holds some position in between?

Whether we are aware of it or not, we all filter our life experiences through the lens of our worldview. Nancy Pearcey, author of Total Truth, describes a worldview as the “mental map that tells us how to navigate the world effectively.”{1}

As technology advances, we find ourselves wading through very murky waters that deal with questions of personhood at the edges of life. Questions about embryos and human experimentation and euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are no longer speculative theories for ethicists to ponder in their ivory towers, but something that ordinary people have to deal with either through voting or through very personal decisions. And it can be confusing—which is precisely why we need a map to guide us!

Consider this: The state of Washington recently passed a law approving physician-assisted suicide. Many are lobbying congress to vote on lifting restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research. Great Britain is voting on funding for research on human/animal hybrids. And many of us will have to make difficult decisions about a loved one in the hospital. Just last week, a British couple used in vitro fertilization to select from a group of their own embryos one who did not have the genetic markers for breast and cervical cancer which ran in the family, leaving the other embryos to be destroyed. One’s view of origins, and particularly who man is within that view, has a profound impact on how we make decisions regarding such bioethical issues.

Characteristics of the Map

Pearcey says that every worldview, or mental map, has to answer these three questions: 1) How did we get here? 2) What happened to us? and, 3) How do we make things right? Christian theism answers these questions with the biblical record of:

1) Creation,
2) Fall of mankind from favor and fellowship with God,
3) Redemption of fallen mankind through salvation in Jesus Christ.

Naturalism would answer these questions with:

1) Macro-evolution, natural selection randomly acting on chance variations, (no one to answer to)
2) No right or wrong, just “survival of the fittest,” (no inherent law to be held to), and the
3) Evolving and passing on of our DNA (no over arching plan or ultimate meaning to life than to just continue living).

The answers to these questions directly affect our view of personhood. Both secularists and Christians would agree that “a person” is valued as having a right to life and in the United States; we would agree with our founding Fathers that they have certain inalienable rights. But the answer to the question “What is a person and how should they be treated?” is very different under each worldview, and will guide you to very different waters.

The Christian Theism Map

From the Christian view of origins, we find that man is created in the image of God{2} and that he is a special part of creation, above all other creatures.{3} Part of being made in the image of God is that humans are more than the sum of their physical parts. People are made up of both body and mind (or soul), and these physical and spiritual components are integral to a person’s identity.{4} James 2:26 says that the body apart from the spirit is dead. The story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8:55 makes clear that when her spirit returned to her body, she was once again alive. Also passages about the resurrection, such as 1 Corinthians 15, make a distinction between the spirit and the body.

If people are both spiritual and physical, then their value is not just placed in physical abilities or in their genetics. There is value beyond the body. We would still consider a disabled person, or a person in a coma, or a victim of a horrible accident as a valuable person. Even if their body became functionless or mangled, they would still be valued as a person because their value and identity entails more than the physical self. The body is important and a crucial part of their identity, but it is not the only measure.

The Naturalism Map {5}

From the naturalistic view of origins, popularly embodied in Darwinism, man is part of a long heritage that began with natural selection acting first on chemicals, then cells, then simple animals, and now on the current assortment of animals, including homo sapian. Man is considered another animal, and does not necessarily deserve any more rights or privileges than any other animal. Because the naturalistic worldview denies the supernatural or spiritual, man is seen as merely a physical being. Therefore, his value stems entirely from in his physical capabilities and genetics.

This mental map has led to such murky waters as the eugenics movement, through which scientists engaged in sterilization of prisoners, the intellectually weak and the poor because they wanted to improve the human race and purge “bad genes” from the gene pool. They also considered certain races as more advanced, or more evolved, than other races. The logical end of the eugenics movement was realized in Nazi Germany. Darwinism is not necessarily the cause of eugenics, but eugenics is an unsurprising logical possiblility under that particular worldview.

From the naturalistic view of personhood, one man can value another man based solely on his physical appearance or capabilities. Logically, from the naturalistic worldview, one can justify almost any action because “survival of the fittest” is the reigning ethic.

The eugenics movement is widely considered a black mark on American history, and many would consider it long gone with our lessons learned. However, many bioethicists, doctors and medical health professionals still practice medicine and make decisions based on a worldview and values that were used to justify eugenics. It is common to discuss a person’s “quality of life” and make decisions on how to treat—or even if they should treat a patient—based on this measure. “Quality of life” criteria are often arbitrary measures of a person’s worth based on how well they function physically and mentally compared to what is deemed “normal.” Unfortunately, such subjective “quality of life” ratings and scales likely reflect what the doctors or authors’ personally value more than the dignity or sanctity of the individual they are measuring. Quality of life measurements and our example of the Great Britain couple choosing an embryo based on its genetic markers are examples of people practicing a type of eugenics, whether they wish to call it that or not.

So Origins Does Matter. . .

These are two very different views of man, and lead to widely varying conclusions about personhood or the sanctity of human life.

The Bible may not contain the words “stem cells” or “euthanasia” but it does speak to the value and sanctity of human life. It also addresses how we should value one another and why it is so tempting to judge each other based on our own standards instead of God’s standards. Whether we are talking about the Pharisee who was thankful he was not like the tax collector or the person who decides that embryos and the elderly should not continue living because they’re worth more dead than alive, one person is placing a value on another person based on his own criteria of values as opposed to God’s. In fact, he is putting himself in the place of God.

I am reminded of a passage when God was directing Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel was judging the sons of Jesse based on physical standards only, “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’”{6} Samuel judged Jesse’s sons based on their physical features, but God reminds him that he has standards that are beyond what man can see. The naturalistic worldview of personhood is similar to Samuel’s standards of who would be a fitting king, but the Christian theistic worldview holds that it is God’s standards, not man’s, that dictate how we are to value a person. God values individuals despite their physical features and while we may not see their value right away (David was a young shepherd), God does. Thus, we must trust that what he values is what we should value.

Again, our worldview is like a mental map. Personally, if I had to navigate murky waters, I would rather have a map made by the Creator, himself—a God’s–eye–view of the waters—than the limited perspective of someone standing right there in the middle of it. Whose map are you going to use?

Notes

1. Pearcey, Nancy, Total Truth, Crossway Books, 2005, p. 23. See Probe’s review of Total Truth here: www.probe.org/total-truth.
2. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27 (ESV Bible).
3. “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Genesis 1:26 (ESV); See also Genesis 1:28-30.
4. See Probe’s article on The Spiritual Brain: www.probe.org/the-spiritual-brain.
5. For more information on Darwinism, see Probe’s articles at: www.probe.org/category/faith-and-science/origins/.
6. 1 Samuel 16:7 (ESV Bible).

© 2009 Probe Ministries




The Controversy Over Stem Cell Research

What Are Stem Cells and Why Are They Important?

President Bush recently decided to allow the use of federal funds to research the therapeutic properties of privately produced human embryonic stem cells (ES). President Bush clearly maintained the prohibited use of federal monies to produce human ES cells, since the procedure requires the destruction of the embryo to obtain them, which is currently prohibited by federal law. To fully understand the ramifications of this decision, I will discuss the nature of stem cells and their potential to treat disease.

Most of the more than one trillion cells that form the tissues of our bodies possess a limited potential to reproduce. If you remove some live human skin cells, they may divide in culture (laboratory conditions) five or six times and then die. Special cells in the underlying skin layers are what produce new skin cells. These cells’ sole function is to churn out replacement cells. These are known as stem cells. Most tissues of our bodies possess stem cells that can reproduce the different cells required in that tissue. Bone marrow stem cells can produce the many different cells of the blood. They are called stem cells, since they are seen as the stem of a plant that produces all the “branches and leaves” of that tissue.

What I’ve described is referred to as adult stem cells. There is no controversy revolving around the use of human adult stem cells in research, since they can be retrieved from the individual requiring the therapy. The promise of adult stem cells has increased dramatically in recent years. Stem cells have even been found in tissues previously thought to be devoid of them, such as neural tissue. It has recently been shown that certain types of stem cells are not limited to producing cells for the tissue in which they reside. For instance, bone marrow stem cells can produce skeletal muscle, neural, cardiac muscle, and liver cells. Bone marrow stem cells can even migrate to these tissues via the circulatory system in response to tissue damage and begin producing cells of the appropriate tissue type.{1}

In addition to the advantages of previously unknown adult stem cells and their unexpected ability to produce numerous types of cells, adult stem cells carry the added potential of not causing any immune complications. Conceivably adult stem cells could be harvested from the individual needing the therapy, grown in culture to increase their number, and then be reinserted back into the same individual. This means the treatment could be carried out with the patient’s own cells, virtually eliminating any rejection problems. Adult stem cells may also be easier to control since they already possess the ability to produce the needed cells simply by being placed in the vicinity of the damaged tissue.

Human Embryonic Stem Cells

The advances in adult stem cell research has only come about in the last three years. Traditionally it was thought that ES cells carried the greatest potential to treat wide-ranging degenerative diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, spinal chord injuries, and Alzheimer’s. Since ES cells derive from the inner cell mass of the early embryo (5-7 day old blastocyst), they are capable of forming all the tissues of the body. Therefore, researchers have long felt that human ES cells hold the greatest potential for treatment of degenerative diseases.

While the potential has always existed, the problem has been that in order to obtain these human ES cells, the embryo is destroyed during the harvesting procedure. In addition, while ES cells had been obtained and grown successfully in culture from several mammals, including mice, efforts at producing ES cells from other mammals had failed. Nobody was sure human ES cells could even be successfully produced until November 1998 when James Thomson from the University of Wisconsin announced the establishment of five independent human ES cell lines.{2} (A cell line is a population of cells grown from a single cell that has been manipulated to continue growing indefinitely in culture, while maintaining its cellular integrity.) Geron Corporation funded Thomson’s work, so it did not violate the federal ban on government funds being used for such purposes. But his announcement immediately opened up a desire by federally funded researchers to use his already established human ES cells.

But there are potential problems and uncertainties in both adult and ES cells. While the ethical difficulties are non-existent for adult stem cells, they may not prove as helpful as ES cells. ES cells have the potential for universal application, but this may not be realized. As stated earlier, establishing ES cell lines requires destruction of human embryos. An ethical quagmire is unavoidable.

Whereas adult stem cells can be coaxed into producing the needed cells by proximity to the right tissue, the cues needed to get ES cells to produce the desired cells is not known yet. Some in the biotech industry estimate that we may be twenty years away from developing commercially available treatments using ES cells.{3} Clinical trials using adult stem cells in humans are already under way.

In August of 2000, NIH announced new guidelines allowing federally funded researchers access to human ES cell lines produced through private funding. The Clinton administration hailed the new guidelines, but Congressional pro-life advocates vowed a legal confrontation claiming the new guidelines were illegal.

The Options for President Bush

This was the situation facing President Bush when he took office. The pressure to open up federally funded human ES cell research mounted from patient advocacy groups for diabetes, spinal chord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s. Additional pressure to reject federal funding of human ES cell research came from traditional pro-life groups including National Right to Life and the Catholic Church, with personal lobbying from Pope John Paul II.

One option open to the President and advocated by the scientific community was to free up all research avenues to fully explore all possibilities from ES cells regardless of their source. This would include federal funding for ES cells derived from embryos specifically created for this purpose. Few openly advocated this, but the oldest fertility clinic in the U. S. (in Virginia) announced recently that they were doing just that. Few within the government or research communities offered much protest.

Another option on the opposite end of the spectrum would have been to not only prohibit all federal funding on the creation and use of ES cells, but to also propose a law which would effectively ban all such research in the U. S., regardless of the funding source. Because of my view of the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception, this would be the ideal solution. However, this is not practical, since Roe v. Wade still is the rule of law in the U. S. This means that by law, a mother can choose to do with her embryo whatever she wants. If she wishes to end its life by abortion or by donation for research as a source of ES cells, she is free to do so.

A third option open to the President, and the one advocated by most in the research community, was to open up federal funding for the use and creation of ES cells derived from leftover embryos destined for destruction at fertility clinics. Some have estimated that there are over 100,000 such embryos in frozen storage in the U. S. alone. The intent is to find some use or ascribe some value to these leftover embryos. It is common practice in fertility clinics to fertilize 8-9 eggs at a time to hedge your bet against failure and to minimize expenses. As many as half of these embryos are left over after a successful pregnancy is achieved. These embryos are either left in frozen storage or destroyed at the request of the parents. So why not use them for research?

Other Options Available to President Bush

Advocates for ES cell research argue that if the embryos left over from infertility clinics are going to be wasted anyway, why not put them to some use and allow their lives to be spent helping to save someone else? The first mistake was to generate extra embryos without a clear intent to use all of them or give them up for adoption. Second, these tiny embryos are already of infinite value to God. We’re not going to redeem them by killing them for research. Each embryo is a unique human being with the full potential to develop into an adult. Each of us is a former embryo. We are not former sperm cells or egg cells.

Third, this is essentially using the dangerous ethical maxim that “the end justifies the means.” A noble end or purpose does not justify the crime. Just because a bank robber wants to donate all the money to charity doesn’t make the bank heist right. Nazi researchers gained valuable information through their many life- threatening experiments on Jews and other “undesirables” in the concentration camps of WWII. But most would not dignify these experiments by examining and using their findings.

A fourth option that I prefer is to close off all federal funding for human ES cell research. This would allow private dollars to fund human ES cell research, and federal dollars can be used to vigorously pursue the ethically preferable alternative offered by adult stem cells, which have shown great promise of late.

This would undoubtedly slow the progress on human ES cells and some researchers. Because of their dependence on federal research grants, they would not be able to pursue this line of research. But nowhere is it written that scientists have a right to pursue whatever research goals they conceive as long as they see a benefit to it. For years the U. S. Congress passed the Hyde Amendment that prohibited the use of federal funds for abortions, even though abortions were legal. The creation of human ES cells may be legal in the U. S. but that doesn’t mean researchers have a right to government monies to do so.

The President did decide to allow the use of federal funds only for research involving the 60 already existing human ES cell lines. The President expressly prohibited the use of government dollars to create new ES cell lines, even from leftover embryos. Researchers and patient advocates are unhappy, because this will limit the available research if these already existing ES cell lines don’t work out. Pro-life groups are unhappy, because the decision implicitly approves of the destruction of the embryos used to create these ES cell lines.

Stem Cells in the News Since the President’s Decision

When the President decided to open up federal funding for research on already existing human embryonic stem cell lines, just about everybody was unhappy. Researchers and patient advocates were unhappy, because this will limit the available research if these already existing cell lines don’t work out. The supply just might not meet the research demand. Pro-life groups were unhappy, including myself, because the decision implicitly approves of the destruction of the embryos used to create these ES cell lines. They will cost researchers at least $5,000 per cell line. Therefore, to purchase them for research indirectly supports their creation. Since both sides are unhappy, it was probably a good political decision even if it was not the right decision.

We certainly haven’t heard the end of this debate. Members of Congress are already positioning to strengthen or weaken the ban by law. Either way, the policy of the United States has clearly stated that innocent human life can be sacrificed without its consent, if the common good is deemed significant enough to warrant its destruction. I fully believe that this is a dangerous precedent that we will come to regret, if not now, then decades into the future. The long predicted ethical slippery slope from the abortion decision continues to threaten and gobble up the weak, the voiceless, and the defenseless of our society.

What has alarmed me the most since the President’s decision is the full assault in the media by scientists to gain even greater access to more human embryonic stem cells, regardless of how they are produced. The ethical question virtually dropped from the radar screen as scientists debated whether the existing cell lines would be enough.

This attitude is reflected in the increasing attention given to potential benefits, while downplaying the setbacks and problems. The scientists speaking through the media emphasize the new therapies as if they are only a few years down the road. The more likely scenario is that they are decades away. Your grandmother isn’t likely to be helped by this research.

Virtually nobody knows about the failure of human fetal cells to reverse the effects of Parkinson’s disease in adults. About 15 percent of patients from a recent trial were left with uncontrollable writhing and jerking movements that appear irreversible. The others in the study weren’t helped at all.{4} Chinese scientists implanted human embryonic stem cells into a suffering Parkinson’s patient’s brain only to have them transform into a powerful tumor that eventually killed him.{5}

Research with mouse embryonic stem cells has not faired much better. Scientists from the University of Wisconsin recently announced success in tricking human embryonic stem cells into forming blood cell-producing stem cells. Enthusiastic claims of future therapies overshadowed the reality that the same procedure has been successful in mice, except that when these cells are transplanted into mice, nothing happens. They don’t start producing blood cells and nobody knows why.{6}

This debate will continue. Stay tuned.

Notes


1. H. M. Blau, T. R. Brazelton, and J. M. Weiman, 2001, “The evolving concept of a stem cell:entity or function,” Cell Vol. 105 (June 29, 2001), p. 829-841.

2. James A. Thomson, et al., 1998, “Embryonic stem cell lines derived from human blastocysts.” Science Vol. 282 (November 6, 1998): 1145-1147. Also in same issue see Perspective article by John Gearhart, “New potential for human embryonic stem cells,” p. 1061-1062.

3. David Hamilton and Antonio Regaldo, 2001, “Biotech industry – unfettered, but possibly unfilfulled,” Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2001, p. B1.

4. Tracy Maddox, 2001, Fetal tissue fails to cure Parkinson’s patients. http://www.pointofview.net/ar_fetal.html. 3/21/01.

5. Charles Krauthammer, 2001, “The great stem cell hoax,” The Weekly Standard, August 20/August 27, 2001, p. 12

6. Nicholas Wade, 2001, “Blood cells from stem cells,” Dallas Morning News, September 4, 2001, p. A1. The article was a New York Times News Service report.

©2001 Probe Ministries




Human Genome Project

What’s All the Fuss About the Human Genome Project?

In February of 2001, virtually every media outlet, whether TV news, newspapers, radio, Internet news services, or news magazines, was all worked up about the announcement of the completion of the Human Genome Project. In this article we will explore this monumental achievement and what it means for the future of medicine and our understanding of ourselves.

To appreciate this important accomplishment, we need to review a little basic genetics. It may actually astonish most adults just how much genetics the National Institutes of Health assumes we know about our genetic heritage. The educational video from the HGP includes a three-minute review of basic genetic processes like DNA packaging, transcription of DNA into message RNA, and the translation of message RNA into protein. It’s no exaggeration to say that when I played this short piece during a lecture for high school students and their parents, mom and dad were left in the dust.

Honestly, I did that intentionally; because we are only in the beginning stages of a genetic revolution that will transform the way we diagnose and treat disease and how we may even alter our genetic structure. These new technologies bring with them numerous ethical and moral dilemmas we have only begun to address and for which there may not be simple answers. If we don’t take the time to familiarize ourselves with genetic research and its implications, we risk responding out of fear and ignorance and potentially throwing away crucial medical advances.

I have contended for a long time that we can no longer afford to remain ignorant of genetic technologies. They simply harbor far too great a power for both tremendous good and tremendous evil. We must work hard to take every thought captive to Christ and see what there is of benefit and what avenues of research and application we need to avoid to preserve human freedom and dignity.

Well let’s talk about our genome, the sum total of all our genes. In most of the 100 trillion cells of our body are 46 chromosomes. These chromosomes are tightly coiled and packed strings of a remarkable molecule called DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid). DNA is a polymer, a repetitive sequence of four molecules, which I will only refer to by their one-letter abbreviations, A, G, C, and T. The human genome sequence is simply the sequence of these four molecules in DNA from all our chromosomes. If you laid out the DNA from all our chromosomes in each of our cells end to end, it would stretch six feet long.

A gene is a segment of DNA that contains the precise coding sequence for a protein. And proteins do all the real work in our cells. By looking at our completed sequence, it is predicted that our genome consists of 30,000 to 45,000 genes in each of our cells. So, now that we have the sequence, what does it mean? We’ll begin answering that question in the next section.

What Does the Human Genome Project Hope to Accomplish?

The National Institutes of Health in cooperation with several international research organizations began the HGP in 1990 in the U.S. There were four primary objectives among the many goals of the HGP{1}.

The first and primary goal of the HGP was to map and sequence the entire human genome. There is a critical and significant difference between a map and the sequence. There are over three billion letters, or base pairs, in the human genome, spread out over 23 pairs of chromosomes. Trying to locate a sequence of say 1,000 letters, the code for a large protein, is a one in a million task. Therefore, researchers needed a refined roadmap to the genome. The map entails particular sequences that can be used like signs on a road map. If the trait a scientist is studying always seems to be present with this marker, the gene involved is probably nearby. In 1995, a detailed map was published with over 15,000 markers, one for every 200,000 base pairs. This will aid greatly in associating genes with particular diseases. And now with the sequence nearly complete, with over 99% accuracy, determining the precise effect of this gene on disease will be even easier.

A second critical goal was to map and sequence the genomes of several important model organisms: specifically, the bacterium E. coli, yeast, the roundworm, fruit fly, and mouse. This information is helpful, because each of these organisms have been used for laboratory studies for decades. Being able to coordinate knowledge of their genomes with cellular and biological processes will certainly inform our study of the human genome and its various functions.

The third important objective of the HGP was to systemize and distribute the information it gathered. Any sequence over 2,000 base pairs is released within 24 hours. The sequence and map data is contained in publicly accessible databases on the Internet. The HGP has also been creating software and other tools for large-scale DNA analysis.

The fourth and final primary goal of the HGP was to study the ethical, legal, and social implications of genetic research. A full 5% of all funds appropriated for the HGP have been earmarked for these kinds of considerations. There are many concerns revolving around the use of genetic sequence data. Not the least of which are worries about ownership, patenting, access to personal sequence data by insurance companies, potential for job discrimination based on personal sequence data, and the prospects for genetic screening, therapy, and engineering. In the next section we’ll begin investigating how the HGP thinks this information can be used.

What are the Long Term Hopes for the HGP?

The completion of the sequence was announced jointly in February 2001 in the journals Nature{2} and Science{3}. Both Science and Nature have made these landmark issues available, without subscription, on their websites.

The importance of recognizing the sequence of a particular gene has three important ramifications.{4} The first is diagnosis. Over the last few years, single genes have been found leading to deafness and epilepsy. Numerous genes, however, will influence most diseases in complex ways. Recently, genetic influences have been found in many forms of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and arteriosclerosis{5}. Genetic analysis of cancer tumors may someday help determine the most effective drug therapy with the fewest side effects. Genetic diagnosis has the potential to more precisely prescribe treatments for many medical conditions.

Second, diagnosing ailments with more precision with genetics will also lead to more reliable predictions about the course of a disease. Genetic information about an individual’s cholesterol chemistry will aid in predicting the course of potential heart disease. Obtaining a genetic fingerprint of a cancerous tumor will provide information concerning its degree of malignancy. Third, more precise genetic information will also lead to the development of better strategies for prevention of disease.

Many more ailments in newborns can eventually be screened more specifically to avoid disorders later in life. Currently, babies in the U.S. and other countries are routinely screened for PKU, a metabolic disorder that prevents the breakdown of a specific amino acid found in proteins. This condition becomes toxic to the nervous system, but can be prevented and managed with appropriate diet. Without dietary changes, affected babies face extreme mental retardation. Hopefully, the number of conditions this type of screening applies to can be expanded.

Screening can also be done for adults, to see if they may be carriers of potential genetic conditions. Certain Jewish and Canadian populations regularly obtain voluntary screening for Tay-Sachs disease, a known child-killer. This information has been used to help make decisions about future marriage partners.

Perhaps the greatest benefit will come from what is called gene-based therapy. Understanding the molecular workings of genes and the proteins they encode will lead to more precise drug treatments. The more precise the drug treatment, the fewer and milder will be the side effects.

Actual gene therapy, replacing a defective gene with its normal counterpart, is still very experimental. There are still many hurdles to overcome involving how to deliver the gene to the proper cells, controlling where that gene is inserted into a chromosome, and how it is activated.

Not surprisingly, some have seen the human genome sequence as a vindication of Darwin. We’ll examine that contention next.

Did the Human Genome Sequence Vindicate Darwin?

Amid the controversy and exultation over the release of the near complete human genome sequence has been a not so quiet triumphal howling from evolutionary biologists. The similarity of many genes across boundaries of species, the seemingly messy patchwork nature of the genome, and the presence of numerous apparently useless repetitive and copied sequences all have been laid out for us as clear validations of evolution. Really!

If Darwin were alive today, he would be astounded and humbled by what we now understand about the human genome and the genomes of other organisms.

Let’s take a closer look at the claims of one bioethicist, Arthur Caplan{6}, who thought the major news story was missed. So let’s just pick a few of the more glaring statements to help us understand that little in his comments should be trusted.

First, Caplan says, “Eric Lander of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., said that if you look at our genome it is clear that evolution must make new genes from old parts.”

While it may be true that we can see some examples of shared sequences between genes, it is by no means true that we see wholesale evidence of gene duplication throughout the genome. According to one group of researchers,{7} less than 4,000 genes share even 30% of their sequences with other genes.

Over 25,000 genes, as much as 62% of the human genes mapped by the Human Genome Project, were unique, i.e., not likely the result of copying.

Second, Caplan says, “The core recipe of humanity carries clumps of genes that show we are descended from bacteria. There is no other way to explain the jerry-rigged nature of the genes that control key aspects of our development.”

Not everyone agrees. The complexity of the genome does not mean, necessarily, that it has been jerry-rigged by evolution. There is still so much we do not know. Caplan is speaking more out of ignorance and assumption than data. Listen to this comment from Gene Meyers, one of the principal geneticists from Celera Genomics, from a story in the San Francisco Chronicle:

‘What really astounds me is the architecture of life,’ he said. ‘The system is extremely complex. It’s like it was designed.’

My ears perked up. ‘Designed? Doesn’t that imply a designer, an intelligence, something more than the fortuitous bumping together of chemicals in the primordial slime?’

Myers thought before he replied. ‘There’s a huge intelligence there. I don’t see that as being unscientific. Others may, but not me.’{8}

Jerry-rigged? Hardly! Confusing at the moment? Certainly! But more likely to reveal hidden levels of complexity, rather than messy jerry-rigging.

It will take more than bluster to convince me that our genome is solely the result of evolution. The earmarks of design are clear, that is, if you have eyes to see.

What are the Challenges of the Human Genome Project?

In closing, I would like to address what are many people’s concerns about the potential for abuse of this information. While there is great potential for numerous positive uses of the human genome, many fear unintended consequences for human freedom and dignity.

Some are justifiably worried about the rush to patent human genes. The public consortium, through the National Institutes of Health, has made all its information freely available and intends to patent nothing. However, there are several patent requests pending on human genes from the time before the HGP was completed.

It is important to realize that these patents are not necessarily for the genes themselves. What the patent does protect is the holder’s right to priority to any products derived from using the sequence in research. With the full sequence fully published, this difficult question becomes even more muddled. No one is anxious for the courts to try its hand at settling the issue. Somehow companies will need some level of protection to provide new therapies based on genetic information without hindering the public confidence and health.

Another concern is the availability of information about individual genetic conditions. There are legitimate worries about employers using genetic information to discriminate over whom they will hire or when current employees will be laid off or forced into retirement. Upwards of 80-90% of Americans believe their genetic information should be private and obtained or accessed only with their permission. The same fears arise as to the legality of insurance companies using private genetic information to assess coverage and rates. A recent bill (June 29,2000) before Congress to address these very concerns was amended to the Health and Human Services appropriations bill, but was removed in committee. The bill will be reintroduced this session.{9} I would be very surprised if some level of privacy protection is not firmly in place by 2002.

Moreover, many are apprehensive about the general speed of discovery and the very real possibilities of genetic engineering creating a new class, the genetically enhanced. Certainly, there is cause for vigilance and a watchful eye. I have said many times that we can no longer afford to be ignorant of genetic technologies. And while I agree that the pace of progress could afford to slow down a little, let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

After a series of lectures on genetic engineering and human cloning at a Christian high school, one student wrote me to say:

I am a senior, in an AP Biology class, and I find genetics absolutely fascinating. It’s both fascinating and scary at the same time. . . . [You have inspired me] to not be afraid of the world and science in particular, but to take on its challenge and trust God.

Amen to that!

Notes

1. “Genetics: The Future of Medicine,” NIH, Publication No. 00-4873, 2.
2. Nature, 409 (15 February, 2001), www.nature.com.
3. Science, 291 (16 February, 2001), www.sciencemag.org.
4. Genetics: The Future of Medicine, 9-11.
5. Kevin Davies, “After the genome: DNA and human disease,” Cell, 104 (Feb. 23, 2001), 465-467.
6. www.probe.org/did-the-human-genome-project-prove-that-darwin-was-right/.
7. Wen-Siung Li, Zhenglong Gu, Haidong Waing, and Anton Nekrutenko, “Evolutionary analyses of the human genome,” Nature, 409 (15 Feb 2001):847-849.
8. Tom Abate, “Human Genome Map Has Scientists Talking About the Divine – Surprisingly low number of genes raises big questions,” Monday, February 19, 2001, San Francisco Chronicle.
9. James M. Jeffords and Tom Daschle, “Political issues in the genomic era,” Science, 291 (16 February, 2001), 1249-1251.

© 2001 Probe Ministries International




A War of Words in Bioethics

Political battles are often won or lost with definitions. Proponents of abortion learned this lesson well. They didn’t want to be described as those who were willing to kill innocent life. So they changed the focus from the baby to the woman and emphasized her personal choice. Those who are pro-abortion called themselves “pro-choice” and supported “a woman’s right to choose.” Changing the words and modifying the definitions allowed them to be more successful and more socially acceptable.

Homosexuals learned the same lesson. If the focus was on their sexual activity, the public would not be on their side. So they began to talk about sexual orientation and alternate lifestyles. Then they began to focus on attacks on homosexuals and argue that teaching tolerance of homosexuality was important to the safety of homosexuals. Again, changing the words and the debate made the issue more socially acceptable.

Now this same war of words is being waged over cloning and stem cell research. The recent debate in Congress about cloning introduced a new term: therapeutic cloning. Those who want to use cloning argued that there are really two kinds of cloning. One is reproductive cloning which involves the creation of a child. The other is called therapeutic cloning which involves cloning human embryos which are eventually destroyed rather than implanted in a mother’s womb.

Representative Jim Greenwood (R-PA) sponsored a bill that would permit this second form of human cloning for embryonic stem cell research while outlawing the first form of cloning to produce children. Although it was put forward as a compromise, pro-life advocates rightly called his legislation a “clone and kill bill.” Fortunately, the Greenwood bill was defeated, and a bill banning all cloning sponsored by Representative Dave Weldon (R-FL) passed the House and was sent to the Senate.

Another example of this war of words can be seen in the floor debate over these two bills. The opponents of the “clone and kill bill” were subjected to harsh criticism and stereotypes. Both the debate on cloning and the debate on stem cells has often been presented as a battle between compassion and conservatives or between science and religion. Here are just a few of the statements made during the House debate on cloning:

Anna Eshoo (D-CA): “As we stand on the brink of finding the cures to diseases that have plagued so many millions of Americans, unfortunately, the Congress today in my view is on the brink of prohibiting this critical research.”

Zoe Lofgren (D-CA): “If your religious beliefs will not let you accept a cure for your child’s cancer, so be it. But do not expect the rest of America to let their loved ones suffer without cure.”

Jerold Nadler (D-NY): “We must not say to millions of sick or injured human beings, ‘go ahead and die, stay paralyzed, because we believe the blastocyst, the clump of cells, is more important than you are.’ . . . It is a sentence of death to millions of Americans.”

Notice too how a human embryo is merely called a blastocyst. Though a correct biological term, it is used to diminish the humanity of the unborn. In the stem cell debate, it was disturbing to see how much attention was given to those who might potentially benefit from the research and how little attention was given to the reality that human beings would be destroyed to pursue the research.

Moreover, the claims of immediate success were mostly hype and hyperbole. Columnist Charles Krauthammer called it “The Great Stem Cell Hoax.” He believes that any significant cures are decades away.

He also points out how it has become politically correct to “sugarcoat the news.” The most notorious case was the article in the prestigious scientific journal Science. The authors’ research showed that embryonic stem cells of mice were genetically unstable. Their article concluded by saying that this research might put into question the clinical applicability of stem cell research.

Well, such a critical statement just couldn’t be allowed to be stated publicly. So in a highly unusual move, the authors withdrew the phrase that the genetic instability of stem cells “might limit their use in clinical applications” just days before publication.

Charles Krauthammer says, “This change in text represents a corruption of science that mirrors the corruption of language in the congressional debate. It is corrupting because this study might have helped to undermine the extravagant claims made by stem cell advocates that a cure for Parkinson’s or spinal cord injury or Alzheimer’s is in the laboratory and just around the corner, if only those right-wing, antiabortion nuts would let it go forward.”

So the current debate in bioethics not only brings in Huxley’s Brave New World, but also George Orwell’s newspeak. The debate about cloning and stem cells is not only a debate about the issues but a war of words where words and concepts are redefined.

 

©2001 Probe Ministries